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Childhood
  Many of the portraits on this site show images of children: some are very well known figures from history shown in their infancy (such as Louis XV, King of France), some are children from more ordinary backgrounds, while some are unknown to us. In this section we will look at children as miniature adults, children's relationship with nature and how portraits of young people can hint at their aspirations and ambitions and what they hope to become in adulthood.
 
  Children as Miniature Adults
 

It is thought that until the mid 18th century there was no concept of childhood as a particular stage in life. From a number of these portraits it appears that children were supposed to dress and behave like small adults.

If you look at the portrait of the young Garton Orme at the Spinet, you can see that he is dressed in the high fashion of the time, and is learning to play a musical instrument. Both of these are signs of his status in society. He is depicted as a middle class child with a good education and the fact that his parents were wealthy enough to commission his portrait also indicates that he comes from a 'good' home. He appears very much as a society gentleman, despite the fact he is still a mere child.

Portrait of a Child with a Coral and Prince Baltasar Carlos in Silver depict two children in the infant dress of the time. Prince Baltasar Carlos is still wearing a skirt and has not yet been ‘breeched’ or put into trousers. The clothing of each child is inflexible and restrictive compared to that of a modern toddler. Both children stand immobile and rigidly poised. One is destined to be King of Spain, while the other we presume to be a fairly ordinary child of Dutch origin, but both portraits show the children full-length, standing in the centre of the painting and striking surprisingly similar poses. Do either of them seem to be behaving remotely like children? Do they seem to be having any fun? What do the portraits say about the role of children at this time? The portrait of the Duc de Montpensier is a later example of an infant portrait. Although this child, like Prince Baltasar Carlos, is still wearing a skirt he is surrounded by toys, which suggests he is seen more as a child than a small adult.

  The Future
  In the portraits of Madame de Ventadour with Louis XIV and his Heirs and Prince Baltasar Carlos in Silver, we see two boys who are destined to become king: Louis of France and Baltasar Carlos of Spain. One appears with members of his own family and one stands alone. It is possible to tell that they are due for great things because of their dress, their props and their surroundings. Both children are lavishly dressed and, while both are boys, they appear in skirts as was traditional for very young aristocratic children. Baltasar Carlos' future as king is hinted at in the extravagant silver costume he wears, as well as the luxurious fabrics that surround him and the sword and baton that he carries. Louis XV appears in the Palace of Versailles and points to King Louis XIV seated in the throne, indicating that he will take over from him. While Louis' portrait was painted after he had become King of France, Baltasar Carlos was to die at a young age and never become king. Childhood mortality rates were very high in past centuries, before modern medicine, and parents often had many children in the hope that some would reach adulthood. The flowers in the Portrait of a Boy Aged Two by Gheeraerts are called ‘heart’s ease’ and are included in this portrait to refer to the difficulties of surviving childhood.
  The Child and Nature
 

In the mid 18th century attitudes to children and childhood began to change. Children were no longer perceived simply as small adults and childhood began to be recognised as an independent state associated with nature. Artists thus increasingly portrayed children outdoors in natural settings or surrounded by natural objects. In the Family Group Portrait by Guiseppe Bonito, the three children direct our attention to nature: the boy points to the Mediterranean Sea, one girl carries a basket of flowers and another has a small bird perched on her finger.

Henrietta Laura Pulteney is also shown outside, picking flowers in the garden of her family estate. The portrait also illustrates a move away from the static poses of earlier portraits of children towards a more spontaneous depiction of the liveliness of youth, which, in certain cases, also conveys something of a child’s individual personality. Henrietta Laura Pulteney was described as an 'indefatigable dancer'.

The portrait of Master Nicholls, painted in 1782, shows a child surrounded by nature like so many other portraits of the time. However, Master Nicholls looks more posed and his clothes appear more adult than those of Henrietta Laura Pulteney. This is because Gainsborough wanted his portrait of Master Nicholls to imitate portraits by Van Dyck, an artist from over a century earlier.
 
Discussion Points:
  • Looking at the portraits, what do you think it would have been like to be a child in the 17th and 18th centuries?
  • The images of Garton Orme and Baltasar Carlos were commissioned by their parents and show what they would have liked their children to be like or become. Ask the children to create images of how they would like to look in ten years' time. What settings have they chosen, what poses and what type of clothes have they chosen?
  • Ask your pupils to create an image of a child today at the following ages: 2, 6, 12. How have they chosen to show the child and how does the image change? How does it differ from the portraits discussed here?
    Related Portraits
   
Jonathan Richardson  the Elder (attributed to) Garton Orme at the Spinet  circa 1707
Jonathan Richardson
the Elder (attributed to)

Garton Orme at the
Spinet

circa 1707
 
   
Unknown Portrait of a Child with a Coral 1636
Unknown
Portrait of a Child with
a Coral

1636
 
   
Diego Velázquez Prince Baltasar Carlos in Silver  circa 1633
Diego Velázquez
Prince Baltasar
Carlos in Silver

circa 1633
 
   
François Boucher, Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc de Montpensier 1749
François Boucher
Louis-Philippe-Joseph,
duc de Montpensier

1749
 
   
French School Madame de Ventadour  circa 1715 to 1720
French School
Madame de Ventadour
circa 1715 to 1720
 
   
Marcus Gheeraerts  the Younger  Portrait of a Boy  aged Two 1608
Marcus Gheeraerts
the Younger

Portrait of a Boy
aged Two
1608
 
   
Giuseppe Bonito Family Portrait Group 18th-century
Giuseppe Bonito
Family Portrait Group
18th-century
 
       
   
Angelica Kauffman Henrietta Laura  Pulteney  circa 1777
Angelica Kauffman
Henrietta Laura
Pulteney

circa 1777
 
   
Angelica Kauffman Henrietta Laura  Pulteney  circa 1777
Thomas Gainsborough
Master Nicholls
(The Pink Boy
)
1782